The View from Mrs. Thompson's
"The View from Mrs. Thompson's" was originally published in "Rolling Stone" in October of 2001. The essay presents Wallace's account of September 11th, 2001 as he experienced it in his hometown of Bloomington, Illinois, where he taught English at Illinois State University.
This essay deals with the later of 9/11 and the sudden movement of patriotism that Wallace saw through the immense amount of flags everyone in town seemed to have. He seems to be dealing with an internal turmoil of having to buy an American flag so he can show that he is patriotic.
The day after September 11th Wallace notes that “everyone has flags out…It’s odd: you never see anybody putting out a flag, but by Wednesday morning there they all are” (129). Wallace goes on to explain that he questions several people in the neighborhood that day about what the purpose of all of the flags are. The responses he receives are all along the same lines: “‘Why…to show our support towards what’s going on, as Americans’” and “‘For pride’” and “‘What they do is symbolize unity and that were all together behind the victims in this war and they’ve fucked with the wrong people this time, amigo’” (130). Every person’s response denotes the shared patriotic unity that arises out of the horror of the previous day. Though, Wallace writes, “If the purpose of displaying a flag is to make a statement, it seems like at a certain point of density of flags that you’re making more of a statement if you don’t have a flag out. It’s not totally clear what statement this would be, though” (130). Such is Wallace’s case, as he finds himself running around town trying to find a flag to buy, but to no avail. He eventually uses construction paper and “Magic Markers” to make a “proudly displayed homemade flag” (132).
Wallace’s patriotism in the face of September 11th is interesting considering he spends much of his work (such as Infinite Jest, “E Unibus Pluram" and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again”) discussing and condoning the sadness and horror that our consuming America has become. In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again”, Wallace even writes, “no matter what I do I cannot escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness” (ASFT 310). Wallace traditionally eschews the fact that he is American, trying to separate himself from this fact. But, it appears as though the tragedy of September 11th allows Wallace to join in with the patriotic unity at least for a little while.
In the essay, Wallace briefly discusses the role of television for the people in Bloomington, Illinois, for “they watch massive, staggering amounts of TV” (133). For the community in Bloomington, stuck in the middle of the country, “reality—any felt sense of a larger world—is mainly televisual” (134). TV, for the people of Bloomington, is the main venue with which they experience the rest of the world, the rest of reality. For this reason, “TV’s also a more social phenomenon than on the East Coast…what you do in Bloomington is all get together at somebody’s house and watch something” (134). Because they desire to experience the world together, as a community, watching TV becomes a social phenomenon. This point is a fascinating one for is seems to be contrary to Wallace’s argument in “E Unibus Pluram,” where he contends that TV fosters a cycle of utter loneliness:
If it’s true that many Americans are lonely, and if it’s true that many lonely people are prodigious TV-watchers, and it’s true that lonely people find in television’s 2-D images relief from their stressful reluctance to be around real human beings, then it’s also obvious that the more time spent at home alone watching TV, the less time spent in the world of real human beings, and that the less time spend in the real human world, the harder it becomes not to feel inadequate to the tasks involved in being a part of the world, thus fundamentally apart from it, alienated form it, solipsistic, lonely. (EPU 38).
Wallace here is referring to the solo TV viewer, but he never confronts the example of the social viewer, as is the case in Bloomington. This leaves us wondering, can there be an intersection between the solipsism of television and the communication of community?
While Wallace confronts the existence of irony in many of his works, in this essay he takes a different perspective on the subject. Wallace notes that in Mrs. Thompson’s living room around the TV, “there is what would strike many Americans as a marked, startling lack of cynicism…” (139). He goes on to explain that it would occur to no one in the room in Bloomington, Illinois that “all three network anchors are in shirtsleeves” (139) or that there are any number of cynical, detached, and ironic observations that could be made about the situation unfolding. He claims that “nobody’s near hip enough to lodge the sick and obvious po-mo complaint: We’ve Seen This Before” (140). In describing what the Bloomington women don’t do, Wallace essentially admits that he himself made these ironic and hip observations in his head. But, for the first time in a Wallace essay, there is a palpable sense of shame attached to such “po-mo” remarks: “part of the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F---‘s, and poor old loathsome Duane’s, than it was these ladies” (140)
In the rest of Wallace’s work he does explore the idea that cynicism and irony is bad and has put America into a cage, but no one seems to be truly ashamed of being trapped in that cage. Some people may want out and try to get out, though most characters have not succeeded. And for those who can’t get out, there is not much guilt involved because it is clear that being trapped in the cage of irony is the norm. But, when Wallace is surrounded by “truly decent, innocent people” (140) he acquires a sense of guilt from his cynicism. And it is that guilt that is, at the same time, so heart-wrenching to witness but also, so refreshing to see. Wallace very self-consciously confronts his irony and cynicism in a way he’s never done before and thus gives the reader a further glimpse into his mind and thought.
Even more so, the ending of this essay gives the reader the biggest sense of cynicism when Wallace describes our America. "I'm trying, rather, to explain how some part of the horror of the Horror was knowing, deep in my heart, that whatever America and the men in those planes hated so much was far more my America, and F--'s, and poor old loathsome Duane's, than it was these ladies' "(140). This last line of the essay points out to the reader how much America has changed and actually become a worse place than the one that existed years ago for these women. Furthermore, the tone that the reader is left with doesn't put the America that the events took place in as a victim. This is due to the "horror of the Horror" which can be interpreted as the horror, the feelings of shock, of the Horror, the knowledge that the older, maybe better than the present, America, no longer exists.
In this essay, Wallace comments on the innocence of America before and after the Horror. Not to go to the cliche of Americans losing their innocence because of the events, but rather Wallace focuses on the fact that there are Americans apart from the ones he describes in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" or "Big Red Son," and that it is for these Americans that made this Horror so horrible. At the end of the essay, Wallace describes the prayer circle in Mrs. Thompson's living room:
- "Make no mistake, this is mostly a good thing. It forces you to think and do things you most likely wouldn't alone,...and it's good to pray this way.
- It's just a bit lonely to have to. Truly decent, innocent people can be taxing to be around." (140)
It is in this theme of innocence, that Wallace is able to identify himself as cynical about America, and recognize the tragedy that the people truly harmed by the events were exactly the people who are outside of the American idea that is traditionally thought of as America.
This essay was written in the days after September 11th, 2001. The original article in the Rolling Stones had this warning at the top of it: "Caveat: Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock."